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Abolitionism - Timeline Movement

Time Period

1680 - 1865


The earliest abolitionists in the United States were Quakers, who held the first anti-slavery demonstrations in Germantown Philadelphia in 1688 and banning slavery among Philadelphia members in the 1750s.

Evangelical Christians experienced a shift in attitudes toward slavery during the First and Second Great Awakenings (1730s-1770s; 1790s-1840s), as thousands of Americans underwent religious conversion experiences. However, some prominent revivalists (e.g., George Whitefield & Jonathan Edwards) remained in support of slavery.

Abolitionism continued into the 19th century as southern slavery persisted. Debates raged in the 1830s-1840s, as Philadelphia pastor and abolitionist Albert Barnes failed to change the minds of southern clergymen, who continued to publish Christian apologetics for slavery. Meanwhile, issues of slavery led to schisms among the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists.

Preceding and escalating the Civil War was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). It argued that Christian love could overcome the evils of slavery and helped convince many northerners to finally take a strong abolitionist stance.

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One of the earliest events in the history of abolition in the United States predates the nation. In 1688, a group of Quaker abolitionists held the first anti-slavery demonstrations in Germantown Philadelphia. Most colonists, who included many Quakers, came to the new world either in support of slavery or with no opinion at all. Quaker founder George Fox began to question slavery after a trip to Barbados. Though despite Fox’s views, many Quakers owned slaves until well into the 18th century. For most colonists the shift in attitudes toward anti-slavery did not occur until the middle of the 18th century, when the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting banned slavery among their members and developed a policy of excommunicating Friends (another name for Quakers) who owned slaves.

For evangelical Christians, the shift in attitudes toward slavery began in the aftermath of the First Great Awakening, which took place in the 1730s and 1740s, when thousands of Americans underwent religious conversion experiences. Ironically, many of the clergymen and leaders of the revival movement remained in support of slavery, such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. One exception to this was the leader of the Methodist movement, John Wesley who openly spoke out against slavery and even corresponded with American abolitionist Quakers such as Anthony Benezet on the evils of slavery. Yet while Edwards and Whitefield did not develop abolitionist sentiments, due to the revivals of the First Great Awakening, many others did. Three examples were New Jersey Presbyterian preacher Jacob Green, Jonathan Edwards Jr. and Samuel Hopkins (a student of Jonathan Edwards and Rhode Island pastor). Hopkins was quite outspoken about his opposition of slavery in his treatise, A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans. He went so far as to equate slavery with one of the beasts in the New Testament book of Revelation.

Post-American Revolution

The religious convictions that emerged during the First Great Awakening had a noticeable influence on the abolitionist movement in the mid-18th century. The discussion surrounding political freedom, liberty, and equality during the American Revolution also influenced the discussion about slavery. With white Americans discussing their freedom from British tyranny, many were forced to consider the tyranny of the slave system in their own land. During the war and in the years immediately following the war, clergymen such as Samuel Hopkins had expectations that slavery would be ended in the new nation. A number of laws were passed in northern states gradually ending slavery by the early 19th century; but the slave system was left intact in the southern states.

In addition, during the early decades of the 19th century many in the North and in the upper South believed that slavery would gradually end on its own. By the late 1820s there were even those in Virginia who were considering some form of gradual emancipation due to the fact that slavery was not as economically beneficial in Virginia as it had been decades earlier.


In January of 1830, a new voice in the abolitionist movement entered the conversation, a young journalist from Boston named William Lloyd Garrison, who was drawn to the abolitionist cause after a spiritual awakening. Garrison began publishing his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator (est. 1831), which was funded by evangelical businessmen Lewis and Arthur Tappan. Unlike previous abolitionist periodicals, this one called for an end to gradual emancipation through colonization and instead called for immediate abolition and equality of blacks. Due in part to the success of British abolitionists led by William Wilberforce to end slavery in England, more American abolitionists were open to Garrison’s call for immediate abolition.

From the 1830s to the end of the Civil War in 1865 the abolitionist movement grew in the North. During these years the movement was not monolithic. Many of the participants disagreed with each other over methods, messages, and political affiliations. Some were for immediate abolition, while others were more open to a gradual process. There were some abolitionists such as Methodist pastor and bishop Gilbert Haven who were for racial equality, while others hated slavery but held racist views toward blacks. There were abolitionists who believed in using the political system to end slavery, while others called for moral persuasion alone or some a combination of the two. Abolitionists such as Albert Barnes believed that abolition had to be argued through the use of the Bible to oppose pro-slavery use of the Bible by southern clergymen. Garrison on the other hand felt that if the Bible supported slavery then the Bible should be discarded. Finally, abolitionists never garnered overwhelming support in the North due to the racist views held by most people.

Despite the challenges, religion played a role in changing hearts and minds toward slavery. Just as the First Great Awakening influenced some evangelicals to reconsider their views on slavery, a second awakening that emerged from 1790 to 1840 influenced evangelicals in the nineteenth century. One of the converts to the cause was clergymen and evangelist Charles Finney. Finney became one of the most famous clergymen in the United States leading revival services around the nation. With the addition of Finney, abolitionists gained a valuable ally in their fight against slavery.

During the late 1830s and mid-1840s the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists divided over the issue of slavery. Theological issues influenced the Presbyterian schism between the New School and the Old School but slavery played a role. This division was not divided evenly between north and south, as was the case in the schisms among the Methodists and Baptists. Yet even after these schisms, the northern denominations did not become radical abolitionists even when they were free from their southern brethren. The denominations still had to deal with the fact that there were northerners who abhorred slavery but did not want to fight for immediate abolition, nor did they want to fight for equal rights for African Americans. The Methodists and the New School Presbyterians actually lost more radical abolitionists to other denominations such as the Congregationalists and Wesleyan Methodists. The Wesleyan Methodists founded a pro-abolitionist college in Dupage County, Illinois, which would later be renamed Wheaton College.

In 1846, Philadelphia pastor and abolitionist Albert Barnes published an important book on the issue of slavery and the Bible entitled An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. For 19th-century Americans, the Bible was the yardstick to measure morality, politics, and virtues. Beginning in the 1830s and 1840s a number of southern clergymen began publishing apologetics for slavery and defending their positions using the Bible. Barnes opposed how southern clergy were using the Bible to defend chattel, race-based slavery. Barnes did not sway large groups of people to the abolitionist cause; but his work provided a biblical defense for anti-slavery.

During the 1840s a group of African American abolitionists entered on to the national stage. Former slaves Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojouner Truth provided firsthand accounts about the evils of slavery and the ways in which the institution dehumanized blacks. In 1841, Douglass gave his now-famous speech, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July,” where he attacked the hypocrisy of the Declaration of Independence in light of slavery. He even referred to sermons from Albert Barnes and accused the church for not standing against slavery in solidarity and therefore allowing slavery to persist. For Barnes and Douglass, there was no influence more powerful than the church on American soil to shape morality. For both men the church had the ability to unite and destroy slavery by refusing to sanction it in any form.

In 1848, another aspect of the abolition movement took shape, when the women's rights movement began in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The women’s rights advocates connected their struggle with the struggle for abolition. The abolitionist movement provided women such as Loretta Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with a national platform. It also taught them how to organize reform organizations and advocate in the public square. In many ways, the skills women used in the abolitionist struggle taught them how fight for women’s rights.


Events during the 1850s influenced many northerners who were sitting on the fence about slavery to take a position. The first event was the passing of the 1850 Compromise. California petitioned for statehood; but up until this point the number of northern and southern senators was even. If California was accepted into the union as a free state, southern senators would be in the minority in the U.S. Senate. In order for southern senators to accept California as a state, a compromise was struck. The part of the compromise that troubled northerners most was the Fugitive Slave Act. According to this law, northerners were bound by law to assist in returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South. This made northerners directly responsible for sustaining slavery and forced many to support an institution that they found to be evil and immoral. This act also inspired the most important piece of abolitionist literature ever written, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The second event took place in 1854 when Senator Stephen Douglas introduced a bill to settle the lands west of Iowa and Missouri. In this bill he argued that the territories should be allowed to decide for themselves if they wanted to be free states or slave states. The passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act set the stage for a civil war to erupt in Kansas between pro-slavery and abolitionist forces. Radical abolitionist, John Brown and his sons, led the abolitionist forces against armed troops from Missouri. The warfare was so brutal, Kansas became known as bleeding Kansas in what turned out to be a warm-up for the Civil War.

Then in 1857, the Supreme Court gave its decision on the Dred Scott Case, opposing the freedom of a slave suing for this freedom. For many in the North this appeared to be another case of slavery growing in power, opposed to diminishing in power. A number of northerners came to see slavery as a threat to the experimental republic and the liberties of the white people who opposed slavery.

Also in 1857, a debate erupted among the leaders of the American Tract Society over how to address slavery. This society was formed to publish materials on morality and biblical instruction. Yet there was division in ranks over how the society ought to address the issue of slavery. There were some such as George Cheever and the Tappan brothers, funders of The Liberator, who wanted to publish materials calling slavery a sin. While others felt that was overstated and wanted to publish materials that condemned slavery but in more subdued tones. In the end, the society did not publish materials calling slavery a sin and took a more moderate approach. This episode further demonstrates the division between abolitionists and the inability of abolitionists to rally all northerners.

The events of the 1850s had a way of causing people such as Albert Barnes to become more outspoken about slavery. In 1857, Barnes published the second of his books on slavery, The Church and Slavery. In this book, Barnes called on evangelicals to learn from Quakers who dealt with slavery in the 18th century. He asked his brethren to be true to their religious convictions and refuse to support slavery in any way. A year earlier in 1856, Barnes who rarely took positions on politics, agreed to give the opening prayer at the first presidential convention of the newly formed Republican Party which had an anti-slavery platform. While the party did not win the presidential election that year, it had success in local elections.

Between the years 1857 and 1858 American cities experienced yet another religious revival. This one was organized by the Young Men's Christian Association and became known as the Businessmen’s Prayer Revival since services were often held during the noon hour in business districts such as Wall Street in New York. There was hope among abolitionist evangelicals that a religious revival would remedy the ever-growing fissure between North and South and finally provide the moral persuasion to end slavery. Unfortunately these series of revivals did not solve the nation’s problems.

In 1859, the situation took a turn for the worse. Veteran of the Kansas wars, John Brown, led a group of white and black men to the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, to confiscate arms in order to lead a slave revolt in the South. Brown and his band were not successful. Colonial Robert E. Lee of the US Army led forces to Harpers Ferry to quell the raid. Many of Brown’s men were killed and Brown was captured. Brown was tried and hanged for treason under the watching eyes of Virginia Military Institute instructor, Thomas Jonathan Jackson, who would become known as Stonewall Jackson during the American Civil War.

A Methodist pastor and outspoken New England abolitionist, named Gilbert Haven, wrote a eulogy for Brown, commending his actions. Haven had developed into a national figure for the abolitionist cause and was one of the few abolitionists willing to publicly call for total equality among the races, not just an end to slavery. He used his positions as a pastor, bishop, and editor of Methodist periodicals to make his case. While many of his Methodist colleagues supported his abolitionist position, he never received the support for equality of the races even after the Civil War.

By the end of the 1850s, more northerners had joined the abolitionist cause, yet there was not a groundswell of support for abolition in the North. The New School Presbyterians, northern Baptists and northern Methodists had their champions of the cause; but none of these denominations made a grand denouncement of slavery. The churches in the North knew that there were a fair amount of northerners who remained non-committal on slavery, even though they disdained the power of the southern slave owners to manipulate politics and court decisions.

Civil War and Its Aftermath

In 1860, Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, won the presidential election. Even before he was inaugurated, South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 for fear of what Lincoln might do to outlaw slavery. Eventually, 11 southern states seceded and the Civil War began. Lincoln managed in the war to save the Union, but not to end slavery. Once again abolitionists were divided. There were those who agreed with Lincoln because they did not believe the federal government had the authority to interfere with slavery. There were others, such as undergraduates at Wheaton College, who opposed a war effort that refused to fight against the very thing that led to the war -- slavery. For the first two years, Lincoln fought the war to save the Union. This changed in the fall of 1862, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Beginning in January 1863, the war became a war to end slavery in the South. Many of the abolitionists, such as Albert Barnes, who did not want the war to be a war against slavery, sided with Lincoln’s decision. Like many others, Barnes believed that after two years of bloody war, the South was not going to surrender and nothing short of destroying slavery would end the war.

The war had a profound impact on northerners and their view on slavery. The 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Dec. 18, 1865, abolishing slavery. After the war, the Presbyterian New School passed a resolution demanding full citizenship for black men. For most abolitionists, the Union victory over the Confederacy and the passing of the 13th amendment ended the war against slavery. Yet there were some, such as Gilbert Haven, who saw the end of slavery as just the beginning. For him, and those like him, the real problem was the caste system in the United States that treated blacks as second-class citizens. For Haven, the struggle to end the caste system and fight for equality of the races continued throughout his life up until his death in the 1880s.

Unfortunately, it took over 600,000 dead and wounded Americans in the Civil War to end slavery. It took another 100 years for the civil rights bill to be passed giving African Americans equality in the United States. The abolitionists had a degree of success in ending slavery. Yet far too many social reformers could not see the root cause of the problem -- racism.

Related Dictionary Terms

Affiliation Change, Measure of, Apologetics, Baptist, Bible, Christian, Bishop, Book of Revelation, Christianity, Christians, Church, Clergy, Congregationalism, Conversion, Conversion Experience, Measure of, Denomination, Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758), Evangelist, Excommunication, Finney, Charles (1792-1875), First Great Awakening (1730s-1770s), Member, New Testament, Pastor, Prayer, Preacher, Quakers (Friends), Religion, Revival, Religious, Revivalist, Schism, Second Great Awakening (1790s-1840s), Sermon, Sin, Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1815-1902), Wesley, John (1703-1791), Whitefield, George (1714-1770)


1688 Germantown Quakers' Anti-Slavery Protest- Hathi Trust- from William Penn and the Dutch Quaker Migration to Pennsylvania by William I. Hull
1688 Germantown Quakers' Anti-Slavery Protest- Hathi Trust- from William Penn and the Dutch Quaker Migration to Pennsylvania by William I. Hull

George Fox portrait- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-5790
George Fox portrait- Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-5790

Samuel Hopkins portrait- From the New York Public Library Digital Collections
Samuel Hopkins portrait- From the New York Public Library Digital Collections

William Lloyd Garrison- National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Marliese R and Sylvester G March
William Lloyd Garrison- National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Marliese R and Sylvester G March

Frederick Douglass portrait- National Archives and Records Administration
Frederick Douglass portrait- National Archives and Records Administration

Book/Journal Source(s)

Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Web Source(s)
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.

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